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March 10, 2024 “Trust That Healing is Possible”

March 10, 2024 “Trust That Healing is Possible”

Lisa Wiens Heinsohn

Homily for St. John’s Episcopal Church by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn given March 10, 2024

The Fourth Sunday in Lent: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

In the late 90s I was practicing corporate and securities law in Los Angeles, and there was a saying about the basis of securities law: “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The idea was that companies should be required to simply tell the truth about the state of their affairs, and investors could make their own choices from there, as long as they had complete information about how the company was doing. In other words, if everything about the company was out in broad daylight, you could trust the market to make good decisions and anything harmful could be avoided, or at least walked into with eyes wide open. Well, whether we trust the market to be rational is a whole different topic of conversation. But even if it does operate rationally, as we all know, it’s notoriously challenging to be honest about weakness, vulnerability, or wrongdoing. That’s true of fortune 500 companies and it’s true about little kids who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and it’s true about you and me and the church and life in general.

Our teen pilgrims just made the decision about where they are going to go for their pilgrimage, based on their values and what they really want to learn, and they picked South Africa. I’m so proud of them and will be really interested to hear what they learn and experience next summer. As you may know, when South Africa was ending its long period of apartheid and racist legal system, they embarked on what they called a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” whose central purpose was to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among the victims and perpetrators of apartheid.  They took the testimony of many thousands of people, both victims and perpetrators of gross race-based human rights abuses and violence, to discover the causes and nature of apartheid, to make reparations to victims, and to provide amnesty to perpetrators who fully confessed their wrongs. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our cousin across the water, was in charge of this process. This model has recently been taken up by Canada in its efforts to discover the truth and make amends for the Indian Residential Schools system which operated there for many years. Many other countries have done similar things about significant wrongs in their past—Argentina and Norway among them. Our own country has done preliminary investigations about the federal Indian Residential Schools system which operated for 150 years and did tremendous violence to countless thousands of Native American children and their families, and to Native American languages, and cultures and ways of life. I would like to see our nation have a full Truth and Reconciliation process to face the truth of what has happened to Native Americans, African Americans and people of color throughout our history.

These things might seem like political issues, and of course they are. But they are also Jesus issues. In the gospel reading for today, Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus at night. He says that he came into this world not to judge it but to save it, and that anyone who comes into the light with trust that healing is possible will receive it. But those who remain in the dark, refuse to tell the truth about themselves, have effectively judged themselves and cut themselves off from the love and healing and forgiveness that is available to them. This does not mean that healing is permanently impossible for them. It does mean that as long as they are too proud or ashamed or in denial to look honestly at themselves, they will be separated from the healing they so desperately need.

The Greek word for “salvation” is the same word for “healing.” That God comes in human form, in a body, forever means that God wishes for healing and divinity to be manifest in this physical world, in this life, not only or even primarily in the next life. And the point of coming to the light, of telling the truth, is not to be judged. It is to be healed.

In the reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today there is a very strange story. The Israelites in the wilderness have once again complained against Moses and against God that they hate being in the wilderness, that there is not enough food or water and they despise the food that does exist. They accuse Moses and God, again, of bringing them out of Egypt only to kill them in the wilderness. And then a plague of poisonous snakes comes to bite them, which kills many of them. Just like Pharoah had before them, they come to their senses and beg Moses to pray to God for them to free them from this plague. And God tells Moses that all they must do to be healed is to look at the snake that Moses is commanded to erect as a standard on a pole. They have to look at the thing that is poisoning them, in their full vulnerability. Then they would live.

There is a world of difference in looking at something that is true from a position of intellect and strength, and looking at something that is true while feeling its full and devastating effect. I’m guessing most of us haven’t been bitten by snakes. I once put my hand on a gate to open it and unfortunately put my hand right on a wasp, which stung me immediately and I will never forget the sharp fiery pain of that. Have you ever been stung by a bee or a wasp? Have you felt how immediately and viciously their poison sets in? The people of Israel were feeling the poison of the snakes that bit them, and were asked to look at the snake Moses made of bronze and put on a pole. What if the snakes weren’t the issue at all? What if the Israelites’ endless complaining, repeated refusal to believe that they could have a better life, that God would provide for them and protect them in the wilderness, their refusal to believe that they could truly be liberated and healed, was as toxic as snakebites to the community? What if that is what God was really asking them to look at?

I’m sure you’ve all been around people whose endless judgmental criticism is toxic. Maybe, if we’re honest, we’ve all been that person sometimes. There are things in ourselves and in our systems that we have done, that we perhaps developed with the best of intentions, but that no longer serve us well and in fact do harm. This week, rehabbing my sprained ankle, I walked to the lake where I saw so many swans in December. There were none on the lake this week. At the lake shoreline there was a sign inviting community members to a meeting to discuss the swans. It turns out that dozens of them died this winter because they were poisoned by lead tackling from the fishing people do in that lake. Some of our choices poison each other and this beautiful, good Earth.

The snake Moses lifted up on a pole is an invitation to the people of Israel to see and feel and experience the impact, the poison, of remaining stuck in this unhealed place, in this place where we keep making toxic choices or where we have been wounded by others’ poison. Then, believe that it can change. Believe the love of God has the power to heal. Believe that you can make different choices because in the exact place you deserved judgment, you instead receive compassion, and this invites hope and goodness in you. Believe that when you feel trapped in the toxicity of someone else’s choice, the love of God can free you.

I said earlier I wished our country would go through some kind of Truth and Reconciliation process, but I should be clear that the point of doing so, for me, isn’t to point fingers or assign blame. It’s to grieve and feel all that has been lost because of the choices we have made, and to receive the surprising compassion and healing love of God in that place. Jesus said in today’s gospel reading that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so would the Son of Man be lifted up. The image of Jesus, a wholly innocent person being cruelly killed by the combined powers of empire and religious fear, is a searing reminder of what humanity is capable of. It’s important to look at that. And it’s even more important to then take the inner step to trust that healing is possible.

There is a power greater than ourselves, and it is a power of utter and boundless love and compassion, that is stronger than the evil in this world, stronger than the wrongs that exist within us, able to bear the full weight of all the harm that has ever been done in this world. Let yourself touch this power. Imagine the love of God as a warm energy that you can allow into your body and heart and mind. Let it fill you with light. And then consider, what is God asking you to look at, so that you can begin the journey to healing, so that you can truly live? Amen.

10am Service